Interview with Susan Steinberg

Izzy Casey

Susan Steinberg is the author of three story collections, most recently Spectacle. Her first novel, Machine, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press. She teaches at the University of San Francisco.

Izzy Casey: Let’s start with Spectacle—the title does so much for the collection, as the death of a loved one, the estrangement of a parent, and the dysfunction of families can make one feel like a spectacle, at the center of attention, while simultaneously unseen.

Susan Steinberg: Initially, I was naming stories in the collection and then decided which one would be the title of the book, which one would encompass everything. I felt the word “spectacle” did a lot more work than the others. For a while, I was thinking the title could be Superstar, but Spectacle, seemed to embody so much more. I thought of the main character as a spectacle—not in a judgmental way, not looking down at her for making mistakes or asking for attention or being loud, but more that that’s what it is to be female, what it is to get attention whether you ask for it or not. A sense of isolation comes from that, you know, a sense of not having agency. It’s so much about performance and gender, and I feel like that’s connected to spectacle as well.

IC: In her essay “Portraits on Repetition,” Gertrude Stein illustrates the difference between repetition and insistence: “When expressing a thing there can be no repetition because the essence of that expression is insistence, and if you insist you must each time use emphasis, and if you use emphasis it is not possible while anybody is alive that they should use exactly the same emphasis.” There’s so much repetition in Spectacle. And to me, it feels like every time a phrase is repeated, it is made new. When it comes to repetition and character development, what must not be ignored for you as a writer? And if anything should be ignored, what must that be? When considering the character development of the unnamed female narrators, what do you think the repetition achieves for them and what are they trying to insist?

SS: I try to stress this idea in my students’ writing: if you’re going to land on something again, is it doing something that advances the story, or are you just repeating the same line because you love the line? I have to ask myself that all the time. Why did I land on that word again? What does that mean, and is how I landed on it here different because of what it’s sitting next to or because I switched one word in the sentence? Or because I used different punctuation? In Spectacle, I didn’t want to use repetition for the sake of repetition. When I see that stylistic device, I don’t usually buy it. In this collection, it was really important, as with my next book that’s coming out, to create echoes from piece to piece. One way of doing that is repeating a word or phrase, but another way is returning to an idea. I even repeated whole stories in Spectacle. “Cowboys,” for example, was a really hard story to write, and one I was avoiding writing for a long time. And when I finally did write it, I felt relieved for maybe a day. But then I felt like I had to write it again, so I wrote it as another story in the collection. I did this twice as an experiment to see what it would be like to write essentially the same story from different perspectives. As for “insistence,” I think it comes in part from being female, from the very idea of not being heard. If you say something again maybe one person hears it, say it a third time now maybe everyone’s listening. For me, it’s never about a love for language; it’s never “I love that word, so I have to bring it back,” or “I just wrote the best sentence” or anything like that. It’s more like a confrontation; it’s like “I tried to explain this. Now, I’m going to try to explain this with a slight twist and see if that helps it.”

I wonder if there’s a difference between insisting and insistence. I think insistence is the action of digging in, which is what we’re not expected to do. We’re expected to cave at a certain point and give up. Insisting doesn’t feel as connected with performance for me. When my characters are dealing with insistence, it’s all about performance and struggle. It’s “I’m going to try this on and I’m going to try it on again.” Insistence doesn’t feel as connected with performance or struggle for me. Insisting has a kind of self-confidence to it. Perhaps insistence is about trying to find an answer, and insisting is already having the answer?

IC: As writers, we tend to hoard a strict set of rules in our heads. When it comes to your writing, do you find that rules are meant for breaking? If so, what rules have you broken through writing this novel? How has it diverged from its initial intent?

SS: Well, writing a novel is a rule I broke. I always said I’d never write one. And I didn’t necessarily set out to write a novel, but my new book, Machine, just started becoming one. I’m also breaking some punctuation rules. In Spectacle and in Machine, I have a couple of pieces that are strung together with semicolons. I was trying to see how far I could stretch that because it was important for me to use the semicolon correctly in every instance. Also, the new book uses a first person plural narration at times, and I hadn’t done that before. That was a strange approach to first person for me, this sort of like what happens when your first-person narrator is so traumatized and so kind of absorbed into her friend group that she can’t always be an “I.”

IC: There’s this idea that first person plural is inherently inclusive, but I think anytime a “we” is used, it’s always exclusive because it’s saying you are not a part of this or that there’s someone that’s not a part of it. But it can also arise from desperation, wanting so desperately to be a part of something larger than yourself. It calls back to this idea of insistence—the more “we” “we” “we” is repeated, the closer the narrator feels to being a part of it.

SS: Exactly. For me, the device was less about exclusion and more that these girls have been in this friendship for so long, that one of them needs to get out. It’s to the point where they’re going to stop being friends. But she’s kind of up against everyone in this world. There’s no “safe” space and this friend of hers provides, temporarily, the “safest” space. The whole summer is an elaborate attempt for the narrator to gain some agency or to be an “I.” One of my editors and I were talking about where the “I” was in those sections. So, I made a rule about it for myself. Anytime the narrator had to deal with something that she felt or something only she could know, the “I” had to be used. She couldn’t say “we felt.”  

IC: I really admire how you build the world of your stories without too much exposition, especially with the dialogue between the brother and sister characters in Spectacle. As readers, we get a sense that there is a real history behind them, without knowing what that history is. Information arrives in a way that feels natural as opposed to the author stepping in and saying “here’s what happened.”

SS: I am picky about dialogue. In fiction, essays, and even poetry, my instinct is just to pare it down as much as I can—I generally think less is more. The stuff I gravitate toward is the stuff that’s really minimal. I try to tune into what it sounds like when people talk, what we’re really saying, how we don’t answer each other, how we don’t finish our sentences. How the whole time we’re talking, we’re having a million thoughts. I tend to see a lot of dialogue that has all the small talk that I really don’t think is necessary. Like “Hi, what do you want to do later?” “I don’t know what do you want to do?” kind of dialogue—it’s like why? Why do we need that? And maybe sometimes we do, maybe it’s about obsessiveness, or something specific to a character, but my instinct is to cut. I’ve noticed that even in some experimental work, dialogue can tend toward a conventional or traditional style of writing because it’s hard to write. You have to reinvent it for each piece. I think you can show so much through fewer, and carefully chosen, words.

IC: You taught a seminar on excess for MFA students in the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa. I was wondering what defines excess for you. A short story that’s really short in length can still be excessive in a sense, where it’s possible for a novel to not feel excessive at all. When is excess successful in writing and when is it unsuccessful? Can it be a good thing as much as it can be a bad thing?

SS: Yes, I think it can be a good thing. And yes, I think it can be a bad thing. It depends on how it’s used. In the class, we’ve been talking about where you want to pile on more language, where you want to expand excessively in your work, as opposed to when you need to hold back. Every time we sit down to write, we have to figure out where the piece is going to grow. We’ve been talking a lot about balance. We’ve talked about how minimalism can be excessive. We’ve looked at some very short short stories and some very short poems, that while not necessarily excessive in language, are maybe excessive in emotion or in form. We even looked at a couple of formal poems and discussed how the form itself speaks to excess, controls the excess, or creates the excess. I started thinking about excess after going to a lot of readings and reading a lot of books and articles and essays where I was finding what I thought was excessive language, and not in a good way. I couldn’t figure out why the author was boosting certain description instead of something else that would really advance the piece. I was noticing a trend in description of what people would look like, the weather, what people were eating, or a repeating of something that was already said well, like, “She and I sat at the table, a wooden square piece of furniture.” It’s like, I already knew what a table was.

IC: As an MFA student, I hear the phrase “you have to love your characters” a lot. However, I think when dealing with topics of estrangement, emotional abuse, and grief, it is more complicated than that, especially in nonfiction. There are a lot of people in life that we might not necessarily “love” but have complicated feelings about. What approach do you take to this in your writing? Do you think you have to love your characters, and if not, what does that mean when people say that?

SS: I hope what it means is something I actually said in class, which was you do have to like your characters. People will say, “Well, what if that character is a terrible person?” And I say, you don’t have to like them as a person, you have to like them as a character; it’s a completely different thing. I write some despicable characters who I’d never want to hang out with, but I like writing them. And it’s important to ask why I/we feel compelled to do so.

IC: It’s fun to tap into to the most despicable part of your mind, too. 

SS: And you shouldn’t feel bad about it. If you write a narcissistic character who’s screaming at the speaker, which I write all the time, you can still like that character. In my work, there’s often a troubled character at the center making terrible decisions, but she’s still complicated and vulnerable and human.

IC: What is the worst advice you’ve received as a writer, but also what is the best?

SS: One of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard is that you don’t have to stay on the piece you’re working on. If you really want to write another section or jump ahead to something else, do it. It could change the entire scope of your piece. I’ve always worked on more than one piece at a time. It gives you permission to stop the boring thing you’re working on and start something else, maybe never return to that boring thing.

As for the worst, I don’t know, but I will say there’s this notion that you have to write in more than one genre, and you don’t. And there’s this notion you have to write a novel if you’re a fiction writer, and you don’t.